HR Management & Compliance

When Skies Aren’t So Friendly: Airplanes Can Be Hotbed of Harassment, Sexual Assault

Ahh, the luxury of flying. Getting to sit incredibly close to strangers, being cut off from your e-mail, and having a delicious choice of broken cookies or bland pretzels to snack on. What’s not to love? Well, now you can add sexual predators to that charming list of in-flight hazards.

Please Stop Asking About ‘Mile-High Club’

Sexual harassment, in its new prominence, is drawing a lot of attention, and airplanes are apparently a hotbed for misconduct. According to one poll, almost 70 percent of flight attendants say they’ve been subjected to sexual harassment while in the air. Many say they are poked—”somewhere between the knees and the belly button”—by passengers on “nearly every flight.” Many are asked, suggestively, about the infamous “mile-high club.”

What’s more, flight crews and attendants are in the position of authority when it comes to stopping sexual harassment during flights. Offenses can range from unwanted touching of fellow passengers to more serious acts.

As a workplace, airplanes pose unique problems. Many “customers” are taking drugs to make themselves fall asleep. Others are drinking alcohol. Everyone is seated very close together. In most cases, law enforcement cannot immediately arrive on the scene. And even then, jurisdiction can be hard to nail down because the flight’s location is rapidly changing. Whew.

With heightened awareness of harassment issues after the rise of the #MeToo movement, some airlines have reported they are changing their training to better address in-flight sexual assault:

  • United’s CEO announced a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to sexual harassment and sexual assault.
  • Delta has said its crews follow a series of steps to investigate an issue and, if necessary, arrange for local law enforcement to be present upon arrival.
  • American focuses on training to curb passenger misconduct and gives crew members the authority to “move passengers, and if necessary, . . . have law enforcement meet the flight upon arrival.”

Federal Legislation in the Works

New federal legislation that could change how sexual harassment is handled in the airline industry has been introduced. Called the “Stop Sexual Assault and Harassment in Transportation Act,” the bill aims to have airlines and other transportation companies create new or better sexual harassment policies and procedures. Examples could include establishing a better system for reporting sexual harassment and assault, allowing companies to ban passengers convicted of committing assault while using their service, and increasing the civil penalty for interfering with a flight crew from $25,000 to $35,000.

Another measure could be changing the in-flight announcements, which already warn passengers about tampering with smoke detectors and other illicit behavior. Airlines could add a message that discourages sexual harassment and assault as an extra layer of protection for flight attendants and passengers.

So, What if You’re not in Airline Business?

While all of this is interesting to those of you in the airline industry—not a large proportion of Delaware’s employers—what can the rest of us take away from this new initiative in the friendly skies? It’s actually a very helpful blueprint for businesses in the hospitality industry at large. Remember that in addition to stopping employee-on-employee harassment, employers have an obligation to protect workers from third-party harassment, including customer misconduct. That can be challenging in bars, restaurants, and other locales where patrons are in proximity to one another and your employees, with little managerial supervision.

If you operate a business in which customers and employees are often bunched together, make sure that in addition to providing traditional antiharassment training, you make sure your employees know that the customer is not always right and what to do if they’re subjected to harassing treatment. Preparation is the best defense.

The author can be reached at lrussell@ycst.com.